“This is for the little brown girls.”- Misty Copeland, Life In Motion
From our place in the audience, Misty Copeland is the picture of perfection. As a soloist in the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT), she is a vision en pointe, as she soars to impossible heights. But as with any success story, it takes a journey. In her memoir Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, the ABT soloist shares her Cinderella story, from a timid young girl who was introduced to ballet in a local Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, CA, to a stunning dynamo gracing billboards in her career defining performance as “The Firebird.” As a painfully shy child, she aimed for perfectionism to keep her rocky childhood hidden. The pressure to achieve that standard of perfection lead to excruciating migraines. As a young woman, Misty found her stride and steadiness through her love of dance and New York City, where her mixed identity was welcomed outside of the all-white dance studios. Most importantly, the prodigy dances with the dreams of the African American community on her shoulders, from the dancers whose promising careers were cut short by the threat of the Ku Klux Klan, to the little brown girls just beginning to tie up their first pair of pointe shoes.
Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina is a must-read for all women, from dancers to executives in the boardroom. If you have young daughters, stash this must-have on your bookshelf until they’re ready to discover it.
Based on dance’s traditional 8 count, here are 8 lessons from Misty’s inspirational story. In addition, we salute the African-American ballerinas who paved the way for Misty’s masterful reign.
Your past can make you stronger.
Misty opens up about her unstable childhood, when she spent her earliest years living in a motel in San Pedro with her mother and siblings. The constant shuffling and abrupt moves caused her to have debilitating migraines and stomach pains. A worrier by nature, Misty was determined to hide her unstable home life at school, by arriving early to class and keeping up excellent grades. Dance would become her escape, as she’d choreograph performances to Mariah Carey’s earliest hits. While the Copeland kids could have used their background as a crutch, they worked even harder to succeed. Excellence runs in the family, with Misty’s siblings ranging from lawyers to artists.
Embrace the criticism, not just the praise.
Although Misty was a latecomer to ballet, her innate ability to mimic choreography earned her the title of “prodigy” within months. The 13 year old had the athletic ability and the ideal frame that made her a choreographer’s dream. As she progressed, it was clear that instructors would not share the opinions of her earliest supporters. Always the fighter, Misty fought back by pushing herself to her limits. Her tenacity earned her a spot as the second African-American soloist in ABT’s history.
Choose a partner who makes you better.
A late bloomer with a fear of repeating her mother’s history of boyfriends coming in and out of her life, Misty focused on perfecting her craft and navigating her childhood, instead of dating. But when she met her boyfriend Olu, she found both an anchor and support system. A lawyer, Olu helped Misty find her voice. With Olu’s help, Misty settled her nerves by rehearsing meetings she’d have with her artistic directors, when she knew she could handle prominent roles at ABT.
When Prince calls, you answer!
Misty has been a bonafide ballet staple for over a decade, but Prince introduced her to music lovers. In his shy and mysterious way, Prince invited Misty to dance in his “Welcome To America” tour. By trusting her expertise as a ballerina, he allowed her to step away from the meticulous critiques of artistic directors, and into her own artistic prowess. The occasional phone call from the Purple One is something this fan can only dream of, so we’ll have to live vicariously through Misty on this one!
Being different is a gift.
As an African American in a world dominated and almost inherently designated for the affluent, Misty was a brown swan in a sea of white ballerinas. As her body matured, her curves made her stick out even more. As some decided to hide her copper complexion with makeup, while others refused to accept her, Misty began to retreat back into her shyness. The Dance Theatre of Harlem seemed a comforting solace, as she’d be able to dance with a community that embraced her. Instead of letting the negative noise extinguish her spotlight, Misty fought back. She stood tall and remembered the words of Dance Theatre Of Harlem artistic director and dance pioneer Arthur Mitchell: “Walk into a room, knowing you are somebody, somebody special. Don’t ever let them smash that or pull you down.”
Make time for your escapes.
Music and journaling served as anchors throughout Life In Motion, and clearly in Misty’s life. Whether dancing to New Edition and Mariah Carey as a young girl, or blasting Eminem and *NSYNC in her earbuds on the streets of New York City, the soundtrack steadied her on and off the stage. Thousands of miles away from home, Misty documented her accomplishments and setbacks in her journal. While pursuing your dreams, it’s important to unplug from the grind to enjoy the journey.
Do it for the little brown girls.
Throughout the memoir, Misty continually revisits her mantra: “Do it for the little brown girls.” The “little brown girls” are of course our daughters, but as women, we carry our “little brown girl” dreams with us every day. Some of us may have achieved our dreams while others are still in pursuit. Some dreams may be nothing more than distant hopes we’ve stowed away with childhood toys. It’s clear that Misty brings all of our dreams on stage, so that we may see a glimmer of ourselves in her artistry. Life In Motion serves as a wonderful first chapter to Misty’s legendary story.